For those of you who were wondering what the hell happened to the Spy 100 Project (all three or four of you): well, Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983) happened. This lengthy miniseries is one of the list’s cheats — a twelve-episode run treated as a single entry — and alas, while it is earnest, historically informative, and well produced, I found it a real slog.
The eponymous hero is a legendary real-world figure of spydom, Sidney Reilly, whose daring career spanned over two decades in the early twentieth century. Sam Neill stars as Reilly, a Russian-born émigré who begins his politically charged life as a freelance spy working for the British in Russia. His further missions carry him from Manchuria to Germany, from London to Paris to Moscow, in an astonishingly long and storied career that spans multiple wars and conflicts. Along the way, he steals secret documents, manipulates friend and enemy alike, seduces many women, foments revolutions, and ultimately goes toe-to-toe with Stalin’s secret police.
To be fair, Reilly: Ace of Spies has a lot going for it: a classy Masterpiece Theater vibe, impressive period production values, informative docudrama-style narration, and generally fine performances. But for all the historical interest and complicated intrigue, I found it ponderous, unevenly paced at best and sluggish at worst, distancing, drowsy, and overlong. Neill centers the proceedings nicely, bringing subtle, charismatic flair to his Bondian anti-hero. Indeed, Reilly is very much the proto-Bond, but unfortunately this renders him not particularly likable, another factor that kept me at an arm’s length. Meanwhile, the world-shaking events on display, which should be quite interesting, simply aren’t dramatized all that interestingly.
I can see why a history magazine would rank this series so prominently. After all, there’s considerably more history on display here than in most of the list’s selections. I do think it fulfills the extended biopic mission it sets for itself. But it failed to enthrall me, to say the least.